This document describes the process for preparing suspensions of hydrophobic particles in an aqueous solution by using a surfactant.
Many materials are hydrophobic (water-fearing) in nature. Due to their non-polar chemical structure, hydrophobic particles want to minimize contact with polar (water) molecules and, as a result, tend to aggregate on the surface of the water and resist going into suspension. This presents a challenge to scientists and engineers who would like to be able to work with hydrophobic particles suspended in aqueous solution.
Examples of the applications are using fluorescent polyethylene microspheres for flow visualization in aqueous systems, creating density gradients, filtration and contamination control studies.
Fortunately, there is a simple way to overcome the hydrophobic effect. It is called a surfactant, a detergent, or simply “soap.” Surfactant is a magical molecule that has both hydrophobic and hydrophilic properties, which coats the particles and helps them mix into water. The same mechanism applies when we use soap to wash greasy dishes or stained clothes.
Selection of the surfactant depends purely on your process and product requirements. Dishwashing liquid works great, so does Simple Green. For scientists working on biological applications we recommend the use of Tween surfactants. Tween is the commercial name for Polysorbate non-ionic surfactants, which are stable, nontoxic, and often used in pharmacological, cosmetic, and food applications. Non-ionic detergents are considered to be “mild” detergents because they are less likely than ionic detergents to denature proteins. By not separating protein-protein bonds, non-ionic detergents allow the protein to retain its native structure and functionality.
Tween 20 and Tween 80 are frequently used. Both surfactants are yellowish, water-soluble viscous liquids. Primary difference between the two is viscosity. Tween 20 has lower viscosity and is easier to work with.
There are many ways to suspend the particles (e.g. put a few drops of dish detergent into water and shake with the particles).
The process below is specific for using the minimum amount of Tween for biologically sensitive applications.
Here is an example of fluorescent beads being dispersed in a pilot bioreactor:
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